Dialogue that works

stroudI am reading an upper middle grade novel – The Amulet of Samarkand, by Jonathon Stroud – and I’m loving it. There’s loads of action, intriguing characters, fun, magic and Bartimaeus (pictured here) has a brilliant voice.

What I’m picking out for this prompt though, is a piece of dialogue. Nathaniel, a young boy who has been sold by his parents to be trained as a magician, is having breakfast with Mrs Underwood, the magician’s kindly wife. Here it is:


“But it’s so boring.”

“That’s all you know. I’ve been to Azerbaijan. Baku’s a bit of a dump, but it is an important center for researching afrits.”

“What are they?”

“Demons of fire. The second most powerful form of spirit. The fiery element is very strong in the mountains of Azerbaijan. That’s where the Zoroastrian faith began too; they venerate the divine fire found in all living things. If you’re looking for the chocolate spread, it’s behind the cereal.”

“Did you see a djinni when you were there, Mrs Underwood?”

“You don’t need to go to Baku to find a djinni, Nathaniel – and don’t speak with your mouth full. You’re spraying crumbs all over my tablecloth. No, djinn will come to you, especially if you’re here in London.”


Things to note here:

There are no dialogue tags and they aren’t needed. There’s also no description of the scene and no adverbs to give additional info about how they are speaking. Yet we can imagine the scene and get a very strong sense of character. What else? There is information being passed on – exposition about the world of this novel that the reader needs. But it’s so neatly packaged and grounded by the details of the chocolate spread and the crumbs on the tablecloth that it doesn’t stick out as an info-dump. Instead it’s woven into a believable scene. More? It also foreshadows future action. Nathaniel may be bored now with his magical studies, but that line, ‘djinn will come to you’ sets up expectation and whets the reader’s appetite for more.

So here’s the prompt. In a scene from a WIP or in a brand new imagined scene between two characters, write a piece of dialogue where information is conveyed but within the context of a natural and believable conversation. Model your conversation on this one, keeping dialogue tags to a minimum (or don’t use at all if you can). At the same time, see how much character you can reveal.

This is an exercise in harnessing the potential of dialogue to work for you in a scene. Definitely worth trying.

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